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'Black Annie' at Parchman Prison Farm, Mississippi

from "Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice", by David M. Oshinsky

New York Free Press, c.1996

There was more. The true symbol of authority and discipline at Parchman was a leather strap, three feet long and six inches wide, known as "Black Annie," which hung from the driver's belt. Whipping had a long history in the South, of course, and not only on the slave plantations. It had been legally, often publicly, employed against white criminals for a host of minor crimes, and it had survived long after other forms of corporal punishment, such as branding and ear cropping, had been abolished.

 Yet whipping had strong racial overtones because it had been used so frequently against slaves. "Punishment on the plantation was, essentially, physical punishment," wrote one historian. And the lash "was the correctional instrument of all purpose." When ex-slaves recalled their experiences, whipping was rarely overlooked. "Ole Marse was good, but when yo' made him mad he wud hay' yo whupped," a Mississippi freedman recalled. "He would come out in the mornin' an' want to whup everything he seen," said another. One ex-slave remembered the whipping of his mother and the retribution he had planned: "I sed to myself 'iffen I eber get free I wus gwine to whup dat overseer. His name wus Silas Jacobs. But he died not long afte' de war an' I neber got to whup him."

 By 1900, corporal punishment for prisoners had been abandoned -- in law, if not in practice -- by most states outside the South. (The glaring exception was Delaware, a border state, where thousands of public whippings were inflicted upon lawbreakers well into the 1950s.) Arkansas, Texas, Florida, and Louisiana all used the lash on their convicts without serious public opposition. It was part of the regional culture, and most prisoners were black.

 At Parchman, formal punishment meant a whipping in front of the men. It was done by the sergeant, with the victim stripped to the waist and spread-eagled on the floor. What convicts most remembered were the sounds of Black Annie: the "whistlin'" air, the crack on bare flesh, the convict's painful grunt.

J.S. They whupped us with big wide strops. They didn't whup no clothes. They whupped your naked butt. And they had two men to hold you.

WB. Four!

J.S. As many as they need...

A.L. Did they ever injure anybody that way?

J.S. Wooo!

WB. Yeah!

J.S. Kill um! Kill um!

WB. They'd kill um like that."

 The most common offenses -- fighting, stealing, "disrespect" to an officer, and failure to meet work quotas -- were punishable by five to fifteen lashes. Escape attempts carried an unspeakable penalty: a whipping without limits. One superintendent recalled a mass breakout in the 1930s in which a trusty-shooter was killed. "To get confessions," he said, "I had whippings given to the eight we caught who weren't wounded. Before the young ringleader confessed, I had him lashed on the buttocks, calves, and palms, then gave him fifteen lashes on the soles of his feet. This cleared his mind."

 The number and severity of whippings depended on the sergeant in charge. "Book rules" meant little in the field camps, which were fiefdoms unto themselves. The sergeants worked in relative isolation. Some of them were alcoholics; a few were sadists. "They beat hell out of you for any reason or no reason," an inmate remarked. "It's the greatest pleasure of their lives." Above all, the sergeants were under pressure to make a good crop, and that meant pushing the men. "What can you expect in the way of judgment at fifty dollars a month?" asked one prison official. "What kind of foreman on the outside [is] employed at fifty dollars a month?" They usually pay foremen more than anybody else, the man who works the men, but that's what they pay here -- fifty dollars a month!"

 There were sergeants who saved the lash for serious infractions, and sergeants who whipped all the time. There was little supervision, despite the pompous claims of the superintendents, because whippings were viewed as the best way to keep the men working -- and afraid. It was not unusual for a convict to be lashed for breaking his shovel in the fields, or for several dozen convicts to be whipped for the theft of a single postage stamp. "There is no telling what punishment will be used in this prison," said a gunman in the 1930s, "It all depends on how mad the sergeant is, as to whether you get 15 or fifty lashes."

 When asked to defend Black Annie, Parchman officials did so with pride. The lash was effective punishment, they insisted, and it did not keep men from the fields. "You spank a fellow right," claimed a superintendent, "and he'll be able to work on." Most of all, Black Annie seemed the perfect instrument of discipline in a prison populated by the wayward children of former slaves. There simply was no better way "of punishing [this] class of criminals," said Dr. A. M. M'Callum, Parchman's first physician, "and keeping them at the labor required of them."

 Public opinion in Mississippi strongly supported the lash. Prison officials and sheriffs, politicians and judges, church groups and newspapers -- most seemed to favor its use. "The whip makes no appeal to hidden virtue," said The Jackson Clarion-Ledger," but it is a sure and effective means of planting fear ... in the hearts of [criminals]. It is retribution, and retribution hurts."

 No one knew this better than the convicts who had felt Black Annie's clout. Their fear and pain were heard across the fields.

Ridin' in a hurry

Great Godamighty!

Ridin' like he's angry

Great Godamighty!

Well, I wonder whut's de matter?

Great Godamighty!

Bull whip in one han', cowhide in de udder.

Great Godamighty!

Well, de Cap'n went to talkin',

Great Godamighty!

'Well, come on here an' hol' him!'

Great Godamighty!

'Cap'n let me off, suh?'

Great Godamighty!

'Woncha 'low me a chance, suh?'

Great Godamighty!

'Bully, low' down yo' britches!'

Great Godamighty!

De Bully went to pleadin',

Great Godamighty!

De Bully went to hollerin',

Great Godamighty!

. . .

 White convicts were said to work less and complain more than black convicts, and to consciously reject their lot. "When I tell one of these young [whites] to take a hoe and join the field squad, I am often met with a haughty refusal . . .," said Tann. "We have tried the dark cell, a bread-and-water-diet, standing them on a barrel. Such methods don't work. I've tried them all. When persuasion fails, I order the rebel stripped and whipped. Then I give him a day to think it over. The second morning . . . he is whipped again. Perhaps the third day, the same program must be followed, but not often does the man hold out longer than that."

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